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How to Shake Hands With “The Magic Handshake”

March 10, 2014

All public figures – particularly politicians, need to understand that the purpose of a handshake in front of an audience or a camera, is to allow the public to take a reading – to gage the nature of the relationship between the politician and the person he or she is shaking hands with.  This rule holds whether a politician is shaking the hand of a world leader or an ordinary citizen at a lunch counter.

Clearly George W. Bush did not understand this concept.  As President, he apparently thought shaking hands in front of a camera, was an opportunity to showcase his smile for posterity.  These are not anecdotal photographs.  On the Getty Images website, there are literally hundreds of photos of President Bush in this same awkward position.


How to shake hands in order to gain instinctual trust.

In stark contrast, Ronald Reagan appears to have completely understood exactly what a public handshake was all about, and it’s value.  Reagan also understood how to properly shake hands:  Keep your elbow close to your torso and move toward people as they move toward you.  There is strength in allowing your friends and your opponents to get close to you.

By giving opponents permission to invade your space, you show them how comfortable you are when they do so.  Simultaneously, you are invading their space which is a powerful way to gauge, test, and challenge their strength and confidence.

In addition, look at Reagan’s powerful and precise eye contact in the photos above.  Though he didn’t know our term for how he connected with people during a handshake, Reagan clearly understood the concept of consumption even if he’d never heard the word used in this context.  There is an absolutely striking contrast between President Reagan and George W. Bush regarding eye contact during a handshake.  Getty Images’ website contains hundreds of photos of both Presidents.  In a viewing of the first 500 photos of each, in those photos where either president is shaking hands, Bush is looking at the person he’s shaking hands with approximately 38% of the time.  Reagan is looking at the person he’s shaking hands with about 93% of the time, which tells you quite a lot about their individual abilities to connect with others.  This statistic alone makes it understandable why Bush was considered such a poor communicator, and Reagan’s moniker was “The Great Communicator.”  Obviously Reagan made a concerted effort to make an emotional connection with those he came in contact with, and that effort translated to a desire to connect with individual audience members when he was giving a speech.

If a politician believes that the most important aspect of making a speech is to enable audiences to see and hear him or her, then that will be the result.  The audience will see and hear the politician.  But the politician who understands – as Reagan did, that the real purpose of any public address is to motivate listeners – to call them to action; then he or she is likely to accomplish that goal.  But this is only possible if the speaker is skilled at making emotional connections with others.

Viewing photos of Reagan shaking hands clearly illustrates that he was a masterfully persuasive communicator, who knew how to use his arms, legs, torso, head and eyes to persuade – not just his ego or his vocal folds.  The difference between these two President’s abilities to connect with others was striking, and the poll numbers following their public addresses provide corroborating evidence that their ability (or lack thereof) to connect to an individual one-on-one, also translated to an ability to connect with an entire audience.  Over the course of his Presidency, Bush rarely got a positive boost in the polls following a major speech, and Reagan virtually always did.  Reagan left office as a hero; Bush stumbled out as a failure.

The arrogant politician who comes to believe that he is the most important person in any room he enters, as evidence indicates that Bush did, loses his ability to connect with others.

And all politicians should take note that it’s not the number of hands you touch that will garner the support, confidence and loyalty of the electorate; it’s the quality of each touch.  The politician who takes a moment to truly connect with one person during a handshake and is consumed during that handshake, will simultaneously affect the emotions of the dozens surrounding him or her, and the thousands or millions who witness that handshake – that touch, on television, the internet, or in magazines or newspapers.

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